Listen carefully – above the polite tinkling of teacups and the clip-clip of pruning shears, you might hear the faint suggestion of a row brewing at that most English of events, the hardy annual that is the Royal Horticultural Society (RHS) Chelsea Flower Show.
Last year there was an audible murmur of disquiet at the fact that out of the 15 most prestigious show gardens, only 2 were designed by women. Indeed, since 2000 only around a quarter of all show gardens have involved women designers, and only one female designer has won ‘best in show’.
To their credit, the event organisers recognised the issue and promised to do more to encourage female entrants and to rectify the gender deficit. The RHS looked at its processes and found that female designers weren’t getting on the shortlists, and so have encouraged more women to apply to show their work at Chelsea. This year the number of show gardens has been increased to 17, and 6 have been designed by women. So far, so good. Among the show gardens is the first to be entered by a black female designer, Juliet Sargeant. She has been quoted as saying that horticulture is quite a traditional profession and could do more to encourage participation by people from all walks of life in the flower show, and from ethnic minorities in particular.
While some (notably Diarmuid Gavin the TV gardening veteran) have been supportive of her comments, other including Alan Titchmarsh have been critical, saying that gardening is a great leveller enjoyed by all. The Chelsea flower show selection panel chair has argued that the RHS does much to encourage all communities to take part in horticulture, and to gain apprenticeships, and said that Sargeant was being ‘publicity-seeking’ by raising the issue of diversity.
However, the evidence that Chelsea is unrepresentative seems pretty compelling – at the community level it’s true that people from all walks of life, both female and male, enjoy gardening and have considerable expertise. But there is no getting away from the fact that the Society of Garden Designers enjoys 70% female membership, but women have produced relatively few show gardens. And there are a range of hurdles to getting on the roster for the Chelsea show, which might deter many without unusual determination, and, importantly, the ability to cultivate connections as well as plants.
2014 gold medal winner Charlotte Rowe wrote in the Guardian last year about the labyrinthine process of getting a show garden design from drawing board to Chelsea. This involves getting a charity partner and a commercial sponsor, as well as coming up with a strong, original design. Show gardens do not come cheap – costing upwards of £300,000 to put on, and it may be that this poses particular challenges for women seeking funding. It has been shown in many professional contexts that investors often favour male candidates, and that selection panels have a tendency to recruit males over females, so garden design is unlikely to be much different. And like many creative professions, it is majority female in the lower echelons, but male-dominated at the top.
So it seems a shame that there has been a spat over the discussion of diversity at Chelsea. Charity involvement means that social justice issues are often highlighted in the show. Alan Titchmarsh’s comments about gardening being open to all, included the observation that ‘nearly everybody has a front garden’. This seems to go against the RHS’s own pre-show foray into media, which revealed that the high number of rental properties in the UK, means that many front gardens are disappearing under concrete, or left neglected by tenants with little motivation to do gardening in a place that is not their own. These trends particularly affect the young, urban population – surely the kind of people Sargeant was talking about encouraging to take part in horticulture. A rose may be a rose by any other name, but it would be a good thing if big names in garden design were attached to someone young, female or non-white a bit more often.